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Public TV stations struggle to convert to Digital TV
By Andrew Haeg
Minnesota Public Radio
July 12, 2001
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Public television stations across the state are facing a crisis. By May, 2003 all public TV stations in the country must convert to digital broadcasting technology. But Minnesota's public broadcasters are having trouble funding the switch, and the Legislature in its recent session provided far less money than supporters had requested. As a result, some stations including TPT in the Twin Cities may eliminate popular programming. And others could have to shut down altogether.

The Minnesota Public Television system has six stations around the state, and 10 transmitters. The federal government has mandated that all public TV stations begin broadcasting in digital format by 2003.
(Image courtesy of Twin Cities Public Television)

"The digital technology essentially allows public television, in my view, to reinvent itself," says Jim Pagliarini, president and CEO of Twin Cities Public Television. He says that, with digital television, TPT will be able to offer higher quality video, with crystal clear sound. But, more importantly, TPT can send vast amounts of data to homes via digital TV, making public television interactive.

The problem is, making the switch requires a substantial, one-time infrastructure investment - some $46 million for all six of Minnesota's public stations.

"It's a very tall order to fill," says Al Harmon, general manager of WDSE-TV in Duluth, and president of the Minnesota Public Television Association. "We have approached that challenge with optimism fueled by what we see as the promise of the technology."

At least in the short term, Harmon's optimism may be misplaced. In the last one-and-a-half years, WDSE-TV has laid off three of 29 staff members to help fund the switch. And he says when station managers sit down in September to look at the next year's budget, there may be further cuts.

The state's smaller stations in Appleton, Bemidji, Austin and Fargo may be in even worse shape. If they fail to meet the May 2003 deadline, the FCC will shut them down. Jon Panzer is station manager of Pioneer Public Television in Appleton, 150 miles west of the Twin Cities. He says as a rural public broadcaster, it's hard enough to stay viable, without huge infrastructure investments looming.

"It's a daily struggle to maintain our current operation and to serve our current viewing area. The digital technology mandate by the FCC makes it that much more difficult to continue," says Panzer.

Public television stations have known for several years that they would have to - in the current lingo - go digital or go dark. But they've been counting on much more state support than has actually materialized. In this year's legislative session, public television stations asked for $21 million. Despite broad support on both sides of the aisle, when the Legislature finished its work late last month, public TV got only $8 million. Finance Commissioner Pam Wheelock says Gov. Jesse Ventura thought that was plenty.

"In his budget he hadn't recommended anything for the conversion to digital TV, so from our perspective, $8 million was a substantial sum of money for something that he wasn't considering as a priority," Wheelock says.

Sen. Dick Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, helped lead an effort to assemble nearly $18 million for public TV. But he says the Legislature backed down in the face of a potential veto from Ventura.

"The blame is to be placed on, certainly, the governor. But secondarily, the Legislature, for our failure to not present the issue to him, and our beng too easily intimidated by him on the issue," Cohen says.

TPT president and CEO Jim Pagliarini says he's reviewing the station's budget. And in a letter to Sen. Cohen, he said he may have to divert funds from such programs as Newsnight. It's ironic, he says, that some other states like Alabama and Mississippi have fully funded their stations' switch to digital TV.

"It has been a headscratcher for us, because the expectation is that Minnesota is very often leading the pack and not at the end of the line," says Pagliarini.

TPT and the state's other five public television stations are appealing to members for more money. They have their work cut out for them. The general manager of the station in Appleton - for example - estimates the station would need every member to pay $4,000 to meet the funding target. In next year's bonding session of the Legislature, public TV supporters will ask for the money they didn't get this session.